Body Image Affects Gay Men in a Queer Way

Monday Magazine | August 12, 2004
Last year I was at a nightclub with a few pals, waiting for a band to play, when some loudmouth said, “That shirt is so gay!” to one of his friends. I decided to take him to task and asked what exactly does gay look like? Between myself (a husky, bearded guy wearing shorts and a T-shirt) and my two friends (one slimmer chap, fashionably wearing pretty much all black, the other a medium-build guy wearing jeans and a polo shirt), I asked him to identify which one of us was gay. The yahoo in question pretty much immediately pointed to my black-clad pal. After pointing out his error that it was I who was queer, I told him he needed to rethink his vocabulary choices.

It was a perfect example of how gay male body image is perceived by others. And a large part of the blame for this can be placed on advertisers who are trying to attract gay men by portraying buff, idealized bodies. You see them in magazine ads, on television programs and in films: gay men as 20-something gym bodies with perfect smiles. Of course, the fact is gay men—like people in general—come in all shapes and sizes.

“There is a broad range of desirable body types, yet only one type is used for advertising,” says Gerry Kasten, a Masters student at the University of British Columbia. In his research, he is looking at the correlation between gay men’s body image and the food choices they make. Flipping through a gay men’s magazine such as Out, The Advocate or Xtra West proves Kasten’s theory. It doesn’t matter what a particular advertiser is selling, they use a buff gym body to draw in potential buyers. “Does a naked torso help me buy insurance?” Kasten asks. Maybe so, maybe not, but it’s the age-old marketing technique of “sex sells.”

However, physical attraction can only go so far. Though a certain advertisement may succeed with a portion of the gay community who do buy into this buff stereotype, there are definitely those who are not fooled. “[Advertisers] are guilty of not showing diversity,” says queer community activist dean diamond. “It’s a promoting of narrow viewpoints.”

If you were to take a random sampling of gay men, you would find all sorts of body types—not just what Victoria doctor Doug McGhee calls the “anorexic nubile look” (men who are often referrred to as “twinks”).

This body image stereotyping creates major problems, Kasten says. “The bodies depicted are difficult to achieve and very few men achieve [them].” If these images are repeatedly forced upon gay men, they will be attempting to work towards an improbable ideal. To achieve the stereotypical buff body, men are often putting their greater health at risk by choosing foods or fad diets or over-excercising. They do these things not to be healthy, but because they believe it is what will make them sexy and appealing to other men. Victoria resident Scott Wilson notes that, “In the gay community, there is often a greater sense of aesthetics and these images have more impact.” As a result, gay men become the “object of their own desire.” Not only are they trying to achieve this ideal body for themselves, but they are trying to achieve this body to attract a similar potential partner.

Some men who do achieve the ideal body, however, are only doing so on the outside. For example, says Kasten, some men who are HIV-positive are taking certain drugs, like protease inhibitors, which have a side effect of driving body fat from its usual storage under the skin and depositing it around organs, and testosterone, since their natural levels of this hormone are weakened. “The combination of these two things, along with the fact that some men work out strenuously [creates] a highly muscular, highly vascular appearance,” Kasten says. “You get a highly prized body appearance in someone who’s living with HIV disease and may or may not have an overall healthy life. I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but I think it’s something that’s noteworthy.”

However, this “hypermasculinization” of gay male bodies is not a new thing. In the late 1970s, the “clone” look became popular, in reaction to the misconception that all gay men were skinny, effeminate queens. The look featured mustaches, checked shirts and jeans or leather pants. As Roger Edmonson describes in his 2000 book, Clone, the look and attitude was characterized by a “butch appearance, emotional withdrawal from sexual partners, and a view of sex as a contact sport.” Think a combination of the leatherman, cowboy and construction worker from the Village People. In time, the clone look, too, became a caricature, and out of it grew the “bear” movement. Bears took the clone look further, by making it more natural, with full beards, husky physiques, hairy (that is, natural) bodies, and most importantly, jovial attitudes. Eventually, the bears, too, became stereotypical.

The aforementioned buff bodies now perceived as the gay male ideal are essentially the new clone in a new package, the next part of a vicious cycle that can ultimately affect gay men’s mental health. “Marginalized groups are more vulnerable to eating and anxiety disorders,” says McGhee. “I believe they are more vulnerable to influences that prey on their insecurities. I would imagine that they are more vulnerable to the negative impact of these images and therefore the impact on their eating disorders and anxiety disorders.”

Certainly, not all gay men are unnecessarily suffering for the ideal body image. “You see it around, people who are active, trying to eat balanced meals and they are not jumping on any diet fad or looking for quick fixes in any way,” McGhee says. “They are realizing that health doesn’t come in a pill or a diet or surgical operation, but it’s about relationships and activity.”

Ultimately, the perfect male body image is as flat as the paper it’s printed on.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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